Building on Kyoto: Towards a Realistic Global Climate Agreement

Warwick J. McKibbin and Peter J. Wilcoxen


As a mechanism for controlling climate change, the Kyoto Protocol has not been a success. Over the decade from its signing in 1997 to the beginning of its first commitment period in 2008, greenhouse gas emissions in the industrial countries subject to targets under the protocol did not fall as the protocol intended. Instead, emissions in many countries rose rapidly. It is now abundantly clear that as a group, the countries bound by the protocol have little chance of achieving their Kyoto targets by the end of the first commitment period in 2012. Moreover, emissions have increased substantially as well in countries such as China, which were not bound by the protocol but which will eventually have to be part of any serious climate change regime.

Although the protocol has not been effective at reducing emissions, it has been very effective at demonstrating a few important lessons about the form future international climate agreements should take. As negotiations begin in earnest on a successor agreement to take effect in 2012, it is important to learn from experience with the Kyoto Protocol in order to avoid making the same mistakes over again and to design a more durable post-2012 international agreement.

The first lesson is that a rigid system of targets and timetables for emissions reductions is difficult to negotiate because it pushes participants into a zero sum game. To reach a given target for global greenhouse gas concentrations, for example, countries must negotiate over shares of a fixed budget of future global emissions. A looser target for one country would have to be matched by a tighter target for another. It is clear that this has been an important obstacle for much of the history of negotiations conducted under the auspices of the United National Framework Convention on Climate Change, not just the Kyoto Protocol. From the beginning, developing countries have refused to participate in dividing up a fixed emissions budget. Not only that, but many observers have argued that if such a budget were ever to be divided, it should be done on the basis of population rather than the historical emissions which were the basis of the Kyoto Protocol.

A second lesson is that it is difficult for countries to commit themselves to achieving specified emissions targets when the costs of doing so are large and uncertain. At its core, the targets and timetables approach requires each participant to achieve its national emissions target regardless of the cost of doing so. Countries facing potentially high costs either refused to ratify the protocol, such as the United States, or simply failed to achieve their targets. Countries on track to meet their obligations were able to do so because of historical events largely unrelated to climate policy, such as German reunification, the Thatcher government’s reform of coal mining in Britain, or the collapse of the Russian economy in the early 1990’s.

The third lesson is perhaps the most important of all: even countries earnestly engaged in a targets and timetables process may be unable to meet their targets due to unforeseen events. Two excellent examples are New Zealand and Canada. No one anticipated during the 1997 negotiations that a decade later New Zealand would be facing a dramatic rise in Asian demand for beef and diary products. The impact on increasing methane emissions in New Zealand has been so large that it has completely offset the reductions New Zealand was able to achieve in the earlier 1990’s via reduced methane from declining numbers of sheep and improved sinks of carbon due to growth in forestry. Similarly, no one expected that Canada would find its tar sand deposits so valuable that extraction would be viable at oil prices reached two years ago let alone at current world oil prices.

One reason there has been so much interest in a targets and timetables strategy has been a widespread misunderstanding about the precision of scientific knowledge regarding the climate. It is widely agreed among atmospheric scientists that atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are rising rapidly, and that emissions should be reduced.1 However, there is little agreement about how much emissions should be cut in any given year, and there is no guarantee that stabilizing at any particular concentration will eliminate the risk of dangerous climate change. Yet it is often implied that climate science translates directly into a specific emissions target and a fixed emissions budget.2 On the contrary, however, the uncertainties still remaining in the science are important and should be a core consideration in the design of climate policy.

All of the lessons above illustrate problems inherent in the targets and timetables approach. First, it forces countries into confrontations during negotiations over shares of a fixed global emissions budget. Second, committing to achieve a rigid emissions target is difficult for countries facing uncertain and potentially very high costs. Third, unexpected events can force even well-intentioned participants into non-compliance. In the face of these problems, some observers have argued that the solution is more of the same: a broader protocol with tighter targets and deeper cuts. However, there is little reason to expect the outcome to be any different, and in the mean time emissions will continue to rise. A better approach would be to recognize that focusing on targets and timetables has undermined the ultimate goal of actual emissions reductions, and that it is critical to move negotiations in a new direction. The Hokkaido Summit to be held in Japan this year is an important opportunity to make that shift, and to move the focus of climate change negotiations in a more realistic direction.

In this paper, we discuss an alternative framework for international climate policy, the McKibbin-Wilcoxen Hybrid3—an approach that focuses on coordinated actions rather than mandated, inflexible outcomes. Rather than committing to achieve specified emissions targets, participating countries would agree to adopt coordinated actions that are clear, measurable and enforceable within national borders. Because it does not start from a fixed emissions target (although an emissions budget does guide the design of the actions we propose), the Hybrid avoids all three of the problems discussed above. Shifting to an approach based on agreed actions, rather than specific emissions outcomes, will be a critical step in the evolution of climate negotiations. It will also make national policy actions more feasible than fixed targets, since a target would be little more than a hopeful pledge given how little is known for certain about the costs of reducing emissions.

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Moreover, a framework based on common actions rather than common targets is particularly useful for accommodating the needs of developing countries. Developing countries face even greater uncertainty about their future economic growth prospects and future emissions paths than developed countries, and certainly do not want to undermine their development prospects by committing to an excessively stringent emissions target.

To illustrate the differences between the targets and timetables approach and one based on the Hybrid, we present a number of numerical simulations of the world economy using the G-Cubed global economic model. We focus particular attention on two of the problems with targets and timetables: the high stakes involved in negotiating over emissions budgets, and the risks stemming from uncertainty about costs. We first show that the outcome of a Kyoto-style targets and timetables policy with global emissions trading depends significantly on the allocation scheme for the emissions targets. We present one set of results using an allocation based on historical emissions and another set of results based on an equal per capita allocation. The results show how different the national costs of the policy will be depending on how emissions rights are allocated. We then examine the performance of the Kyoto-style allocation under one source of uncertainty: the rate of growth in developing countries, particularly China and India.